Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

(c. 480-524)

Part Two: Fortune and Misfortune

by Michael Beechwood (c)



Boethius begins his Consolation of Philosophy in a very un-philosophical way—with a sad, sentimental poem lamenting his ruined state:

First fickle Fortune gave me wealth short-lived,
Then in a moment all but ruined me....
Foolish the friends who called me happy
Whose fall shows how my footing was unsure. (Bk I, ch. i)

No doubt everyone has felt like this at times. It is very easy to be spiritual when life is full of blessings, but when bad things happen, everyone questions the Justice of the Cosmos! But to understand the real depth of Boethius' despair requires a bit of explanation about 'Fortune'. The word is not quite the same thing as 'Fate' or 'Destiny', which imply a sort of design or plan to the unfolding of events. The word 'Fortune' had an especially powerful resonance for the Romans—they pictured Fortuna as a goddess, sometimes blindfolded, madly spinning a sort of Ferris wheel, the embodiment not of order-in-motion but of randomness and instability. Fortune gives one man riches and success, and another poverty and failure, but with a flick of her wheel everything could be reversed—whether we climb high or low, we are all balanced precariously on Fortune's Wheel, whose only constancy is change. Fortune, for the Romans, represented the disparity between our sense of justice and the apparent randomness of life's patterns, the mutability of happiness: for the Romans, Fortune was just a short terrifying step away from Chaos.

But how easy it is to forget this, when one is rising on Fortune's wheel! Boethius had risen to the height of his world—friend to the monarch, respected for his eloquence and wisdom, blessed with family, wealth, health, intelligence, and fame. Anyone with so many gifts might well think that life itself was on his side. And so Boethius was badly prepared for the disaster that befell him—perhaps his former ease and pleasure made his present hardship all the harsher. When his world came crashing down, he was plunged into the pit of a crazed despair.

In the midst of his self-pitying song Boethius is aware of the figure of a woman: "of awe-inspiring appearance, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men." She appears ancient, almost ageless, but vigorous; she seems at times to be of human size, and at others to pierce the very sky, and again at others she towered so high that "she was lost to human sight." She wears a fine garment, though dusty with neglect and tattered by the hands of thieves "who had each carried off such pieces as he could get." She is Philosophy, the teacher of Truth and the nurse of Boethius' youth. On the bottom of her robe is the Greek letter Pi, on the top the letter Theta, and between the two a ladder is embroidered—the bottom is Practical Philosophy, the top Theoretical, and we must ascend from one to the other, from the knowledge of the World to a knowledge of the Divine.

This mystical vision unfolds almost comically: the first thing Philosophy does is drive away the Muses of Poetry, whom she calls "hysterical sluts," surrounding the prisoner's bedside! Poetry, she says, has no power to heal a man as sick as Boethius—she herself will be his doctor and cure his affliction with both the scalpel of Reason and the balm of wholesome Verse. Philosophy then proceeds to recite a poem of her own: she too laments the fall of Boethius, but not his fall from good fortune to bad—she regrets his fall from wisdom into ignorance.

This was the man who once was free
To climb the sky with zeal devout
To contemplate the crimson sun,
The frozen fairness of the moon....
Now see that mind, that searched and made
All Nature's hidden secrets clear,
Lie prostrate, prisoner of the night.
His neck bends low, in shackles thrust,
And he is forced beneath the weight
To contemplate—the lowly dust. (I.ii)

Throughout Boethius' work the language of imprisonment, bondage and
freedom, darkness and light, is used both literally and figuratively—his outer state reflects his inner state. But according to Philosophy his real bondage is mental—it is his soul which is imprisoned, exiled from its true home, trapped by tyranny, languishing in darkness. His chains are on his spirit; they cause him to bow down his face the earth like an animal, when he should stand up and regard the heavens like a man.

As Philosophy wipes away a bit of the prisoner's teary darkness, she begins to remind him of all the philosophers who have suffered at the hands of unjust governments—Seneca, Anaxagoras, Zeno, and above all Socrates. But Boethius is "as deaf as the donkey to the harp," and can think only of his particular misfortune. In great detail, and at great length, as if arguing before a judge, he tells Philosophy of his plight. He ends with a poem, a complaint to God:

Creator of the starry heavens,
Lord on thy everlasting throne,
Thy power turns the moving sky
And makes the stars obey fixed laws....
All things obey their ancient law
And all perform their proper tasks;
All things thou holdest in strict bounds -
To human acts alone denied
Thy fit control as Lord of all. (I.v)

Everything in the cosmos, he complains, is ordered and harmonious, obeying the immutable laws of creation: day follows night; spring follows winter; the stars wheel in their courses. But this beautiful order does not extend to humanity. Fortune, the terrible goddess of chance, upsets the harmony of man. Boethius sees his own plight, in other words, as a horrifying gap in the logic of the Universe, an intrusion of chaos into an otherwise-orderly Creation.

Philosophy is not impressed by his complaint—she says that Boethius has forgotten his true home, his true nature, and the true meaning of life. She reminds Boethius that a Higher Power controls the world; she reminds him that he is a man, but he can only define himself as "a rational and mortal animal"-that is, he forgets his immortal soul. But before she can lead Boethius to remember the divine beauty of his true nature, and his part in the great plan of the universe, she must cure him of his delusions about good and bad fortune here on earth.

She begins by reminding Boethius that the very nature of Fortune is change—by changing, Fortune remains constant. Fortune has not changed her relationship to Boethius by sending him 'bad' fortune: her Wheel continues to spin. Change is the "law eternal" of the created world.

Philosophy reminds Boethius that he has never really possessed those things which he has lost—if they were really his, he could not have lost them. Besides, the possession of much wealth is not a source of happiness, but often of misery:

"No man is rich who shakes and groans
Convinced that he needs more." (II.ii)

True happiness, Philosophy reminds him, comes from within-if earthly goods can decay and disappear, then they cannot bring true happiness, which must be eternal and immutable. Only a virtuous soul can achieve this-not by gold, rich attire, servants, choice bits of food, physical beauty, or any of the sensual delights which pass away. "When a rational being endowed with a godlike quality in virtue of his rational nature thinks that his only splendour lies in the possession of inanimate goods, it is the overthrow of the natural order," Philosophy says (II.v)-the real chaos lies in Boethius' heart, not in Fortune's domination over him. He has forgotten his proper relationship to the Cosmos. "Man towers above the rest of creation so long as he recognizes his own nature, and when he forgets it, he sinks lower than the beasts."

Desires for fame, power, and glory, like desires for wealth and pleasure, are not the source of true happiness, Philosophy reminds him. We can only wield power over the bodies and possessions of others, not their minds, and so power is an earthly thing. Moreover, since power can be corrupted, and fame can go to wicked men, they cannot be the sources of true happiness. And, in comparison with the vastness of the heavens, the earth is just a point-what is the value of fame, set against the immeasurable glory of the Cosmos? The mind, "when it is freed from its earthly prison and seeks out heaven in freedom," will recognize the smallness of earthly concerns and "despise every earthly affair." (II.vii)

In effect, Philosophy concludes, Fortune is 'good' when she is 'bad', and bad when she is good: unhappiness teaches us the truth about our place on this earth. "Good fortune deceives, but bad fortune enlightens." (II.viii) In his misfortune Boethius has the opportunity to discover his true nature, and his true friends; Philosophy ends with a beautiful hymn to the Cosmic Order, held together by Divine Love:

"The world in constant change
Maintains a harmony,
And elements keep peace
Whose nature is to clash....
And all this chain of things
In earth and sea and sky
One ruler holds in hand;
If Love relaxed the reins
All things that now keep peace
Would wage continual war....
Love, too, holds people joined
By sacred bond of treaty,
And weaves the holy knot
Of marriage's pure love.
Love promulgates the laws
For friendship's faithful bond.
O happy race of men
If Love who rules the sky
Could rule your hearts as well!

Philosophy's first advice to Boethius is to ignore the things of this mutable world; if they are so changeable, then they cannot bring true happiness. Her advice is basically the doctrine of the old Stoic philosophers, who cultivated an indifference to pleasure and pain alike and concentrated on inner virtue. Stoicism is a harsh practice because it shuts the eyes to good things as well as bad; the armor of the Stoic is a barrier against beauty as well as suffering. The price one pays for being aloof from misfortune is to be immune to the joys of good fortune. But Philosophy has more, and deeper, wisdom to impart; the Stoic moralism of the first two Books is gradually giving way to a Platonic metaphysics, a true theophany or mystical understanding of man's place in the Divine Order that will open the door to a deeper and truer Consolation. And, as we will see, the truth of this deeper revelation lies hidden in the very language of Philosophy's verses.


(to be continued)


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